Department of State and U.S. Information Agency

Recommendations and Actions

DOS01: Expand the Authority of Chiefs of Mission Overseas


The Department of State is responsible for managing the largest diplomatic presence in the world--276 diplomatic and consular posts abroad. Of these, 163 are embassies; the remainder consists of a variety of specialized facilities such as consulates general, consulates, liaison offices, and missions to international organizations. All facilities and personnel in a given country, except those assigned to missions to international organizations and to area military commanders, are under the control of a Chief of Mission (COM).(1)

The seminal shift in foreign affairs in the wake of the Cold War demands reconsideration of how U.S. overseas missions are staffed and managed--a fundamental reassessment of what their role should be. At the height of the Cold War, the United States was compelled to maintain a presence at least equal to that of the Soviet Union. Ironically, the fall of the Soviet empire has led the United States to expand, not contract, its overseas presence. As more countries join the roster of independent nations, the demand for U.S. official presence will continue to grow. The United States must project its presence abroad to protect its national interests and maintain its leadership role in the world community. But what should be the composition of that presence? How should the new emphasis on trade and economics--as opposed to defense--manifest itself in our presence overseas? And are the mechanisms in place to effect the required changes?

Not only must the current composition of U.S. missions overseas be examined, but also the costs associated with operating them, as well as the process by which increasingly scarce U.S. budgetary resources are allocated. While the demand for overseas presence may be increasing, the resources available to meet that demand are decreasing. With international affairs budgets unlikely to rise dramatically in the next several years, it is imperative that the United States maximize the benefit of each dollar spent. The United States must be flexible in its administration of and organization for foreign affairs. This process involves Congress and all executive branch agencies with overseas interests.

Over the past decade, the staffing levels at overseas missions by agencies other than the State Department have grown at an unprecedented rate. The Department of State, which is the principal agency responsible for conducting foreign affairs, typically comprises less than one-third of the total staff at an overseas mission. The remaining two-thirds represent the institutional interests of more than 30 federal agencies. These staffing levels do not include Foreign Service National employees, part-time employees, contractors, or government employees on long-term temporary duty at overseas posts.

This situation has caused a diffusion of responsibility, authority, and operational prerogatives among the diverse organizations with overseas interests, making coordination difficult. In the field, for example, defense and intelligence have their own channels of communication to Washington. In many diplomatic missions, such channels are used without control of the ambassador, and sometimes even without the ambassador's knowledge as to policy recommendations going to Washington via such channels. This is a situation that can easily lead to different departments in Washington receiving divergent recommendations from their officers overseas, recommendations that have been reached without any effective effort at coordination with the ambassador and officers of other agencies and departments.(2) Maintaining the redundant communications facilities that enable these separate channels to Washington is also costly, given physical protection standards.

In addition, fragmented management of program and staff resources from Washington, D.C., is less efficient than if the resources were managed in the field. With control of personnel and fiscal resources from numerous agencies currently centered in Washington, the COM is denied the ability to shift resources to respond to changing requirements and evolving U.S. foreign policy objectives. Furthermore, the centralized management systems of the Department of State and other agencies are more expensive than if decisionmaking and priority setting were done locally or on a regional basis.

Chiefs of Mission are already vested with authority to manage their missions as a result of Section 207 of the Foreign Service Act; the President's letter they receive upon their commissioning; and National Security Decision Directive (NSDD)-38. However, the NSDD's appellate procedures and strong Washington control in many cases make the COM's authority more theoretical than real. According to former Ambassador John W. Tuthill:

The ambassador should be prepared to take on the unpleasant, time- consuming problem of resisting unnecessary personnel; sending some ineffective personnel home; refusing to waste time answering foolish inquiries from Washington; and, in effect, taking on a large part of the Washington establishment. Without . . . [a] willingness to take on time-consuming and difficult tasks, and hard support from the White House, the job will simply not be done.(3)

The same is true in making difficult tradeoffs between programs and agencies operating in similar regional areas. Ambassadors should have the ability to decide which programs best fulfill U.S. objectives and which are most cost-effective.

Strengthening the COM's role is particularly crucial at a time when the authority of other agencies operating overseas would appear to be growing.(4) In short, the COMs, who derive their authority directly from the President but report through the Secretary of State, must become true corporate leaders of their country teams. There must be a sense of jointness as well as positive but prudent management leadership in the operation of any overseas mission.(5)

The COMs should have direct control of all resources--fiscal, human, and material--within specified broad guidelines, as currently provided in the letters of instruction of the Secretary of State, which are based on U.S. policies and goals.(6) This control would give them the clear authority to make critical management decisions and the ability to fashion an appropriate country team with a staff capable of addressing the most important foreign policy objectives. Chiefs of Mission should determine what department and agency presence is required--and at what levels. It also means that program objectives and resources would fall under the direct control of the COMs. Ambassadors should receive the President's guidance and then mold a team and a program to best achieve those objectives, with regional and global tradeoffs worked out in Washington. These ideas represent significant departures from current practice.

Cooperation among the various executive agencies with conflicting overseas interests can best be realized if the full authority of the President is behind the country team concept. Former Ambassador Tuthill indicated that his well-known Operation Topsy, which was successful in reducing the overall size of U.S. presence in Brazil by 30 percent in 1968, was possible only because it had the full backing of President Johnson.(7) Section 207 of the Foreign Service Act, the President's letter of instructions to Chiefs of Mission and NSDD-38, which currently gives the COMs their authority within a country, is not strong enough in concept or practice to allow COMs to exercise meaningful control. A new document clearly placing the COM in charge of the country team and its resources must be promulgated. The most radical step would be the eventual surrendering of personnel and program dollars to the control of the COMs.

The organizational approach outlined here makes the most sense when it allows the COMs to reduce and realign resources according to specified goals and strategies. For example, in countries where trade and business promotion are the principal U.S. interests, the COM will have the authority to align the mission's resources accordingly, thereby strengthening its ability to achieve critical U.S. foreign policy objectives, such as enhanced economic competitiveness.

The unification of plans, programs, budgets, personnel, operations, and reporting under the Chief of Mission should also produce cost savings. A primary goal should be the eventual operation of the mission and its programs on a decreased budget, achieved through management efficiencies, economies of scale, and the rigorous alignment of resources with articulated U.S. foreign policy objectives.


1. The President should issue a directive establishing a pilot program to increase the management authority of Chiefs of Mission.

The President should issue a directive to establish a three-year pilot program at ten overseas missions to expand the authority of Chiefs of Mission over the allocation of all fiscal and staffing resources. The increased COM management and fiscal authority will be exercised within overall policy and legal control of the President and the Department, to ensure that U.S. international policy and legal obligations are met. While the ideas outlined here have tremendous potential for strengthening the ability of the United States to achieve foreign policy objectives and cut costs simultaneously, they are a radical departure from current practice. With such a divergence from standard operating procedures, a pilot test of the process--rather than worldwide implementation--would be prudent. Therefore, the pilot test should be initiated immediately and concluded during the current administration. A special provision in appropriations legislation should be sought, if necessary, to conduct the pilot program.

Recommendations on potential pilot test countries, generated by a distinguished panel of experts, include Egypt, Thailand, the United Kingdom, and Philippines.8 Additional missions recommended by the State Department include Senegal, Argentina, Saudi Arabia, and Austria, where several international organizations and regional operations are found. Selection criteria for the pilot missions should include geography, size, political and economic diversity, and the range of interagency players operating there. The decision on the ten overseas missions for the pilot test should be left to the Secretary of State, in close coordination with Congress and other Cabinet officials.

Specific training will be required to prepare both COMs and Deputy Chiefs of Mission (DCMs), as well as administrative and budget officers, for their enhanced roles under the pilot project. Special consideration must be given to the role of the DCM, because every DCM must be prepared to serve as the chief operating officer of the mission. They must be charged with the day-to-day administration of what amounts to a corporation with several diverse subsidiaries. The DCMs must be skilled in financial and operational management, having received management training or experience at all levels of their careers.

2. Pilot missions should achieve a 20 percent cumulative reduction in overall spending during the span of the project.

Each pilot mission should receive a defined countrywide congressional appropriation, reflecting a 20 percent cumulative reduction in overall spending over the three years of the project. At present, each agency has its own budget within a country. Under this proposal, each agency budget would be reconfigured and arrayed to reflect a unitary country budget. Given administrative and other staff consolidations through improved workload management, the country budget would be reduced by an appropriate amount (20 percent cumulative total over three years is suggested here) from the aggregate country budget. This approach would force the COMs to set program priorities and find efficiencies and economies in operations. The COMs should not be told what programs or areas to cut over the life of the pilot project, but to do the most possible toward achieving key U.S. foreign policy objectives within the resources allocated.

To achieve the reduction, the COM would have the authority and responsibility to prioritize spending; initiate the closure or realignment of elements of the mission (Agency for International Development missions, intelligence facilities, or administrative support services, for example); and reduce or augment key components of his or her staff (such as adding more trade specialists), within the prescribed fiscal and legal guidelines. In addition, communications facilities should be combined into the Diplomatic Telecommunications Service Program Office.

3. Pilot COMs should develop and submit recommendations for reapportioning resources within 120 days.

Within 90 days after issuance of the directive and selection of the pilot countries, each pilot country ambassador should submit recommendations to the Secretary of State for reapportioning the countrywide budget and staffing levels for the following fiscal year. Concurrently, each pilot country ambassador should develop and submit a three-year strategic management plan, based on a thorough zero- based review of all current and programmed assets in-country. This three-year strategic plan should clearly articulate staffing requirements as well as goals, objectives, and corresponding performance measurements for each of the fiscal years covered by the pilot program. An accompanying implementation strategy should highlight the fiscal and staffing requirements for implementation of the plan, noting where these diverge from currently programmed resources. The Secretary of State or his designee would chair a senior-level interagency committee to consider and approve those plans.

4. Pilot COMs should encourage the full participation of members of the country team in the development of resource reapportionment recommendations.

As part of the pilot project, Chiefs of Mission should encourage open exchanges of views on policy and resource matters within appropriate channels.

5. Upon completion of the pilot test, the President's original directive detailing the test should become the basis for a revised NSDD-38.

This new directive would include lessons learned during the pilot test and set goals for savings at other missions. The intent of the revised NSDD-38 would be to strengthen the role of the COMs, give them clear authority to allocate all resources in-country, and promote jointness in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.


Rigorous implementation of the above-described pilot program will ultimately provide the selected COMs with the authority to align mission resources with defined goals and objectives. More importantly, the proposed program will establish a means to assess growth by federal agencies at overseas missions. The proposed pilot test will provide an important benchmark for assessing how the department, and the U.S. diplomatic community, should operate into the 21st century. Full achievement of these objectives, however, will depend upon congressional cooperation in crossing appropriations lines.

There will undoubtedly be widespread opposition to granting COMs such wide authority and responsibility, even under the guidance of the Secretary of State. Additionally, there may be bureaucratic resistance to waiving established rules, regulations, and procedures to implement the pilot program. However, granting the COMs the authority and responsibility both to allocate the fiscal resources of their missions toward established objectives--which lies at the heart of effective Mission Program Planning--and to align staffing levels to accomplish these goals will:

--- enable the COM to focus on value-added programs and personnel and provide a means to eliminate those that are no longer required;

--- vest the COM with authority and responsibility and hold him or her accountable for the performance of all personnel and programs;

--- allow the United States to speak with one voice in a given country; and

--- promote a sense of unity of purpose and foster jointness among personnel assigned to overseas missions.

Fiscal Impact

The pilot test should achieve a 20 percent cumulative reduction in total costs in the selected countries by fiscal year 1997. These will have to be calculated on a country-by-country basis once the five pilot missions have been designated.


1. The Chief of Mission to a foreign country is the principal officer in charge of a U.S. diplomatic mission, or of a U.S. office abroad that is designated by the Secretary of State as diplomatic in nature, including any individual assigned under Section 502(c) to be temporarily in charge of such a mission or office. Foreign Service Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-465).

2. Tuthill, John W., "U.S. Foreign Policy, the State Department, and U.S. Missions Abroad," The Atlantic Community Quarterly, vol. 26 (Spring 1988), p. 34.

3. Ibid, p. 37.

4. National Academy of Public Administration, Washington, D.C., discussion with panel of experts, including Ambassadors Frank C. Carlucci, J. Robert Schaetzel, L. Bruce Laingen, John W. Tuthill, and Nicholas A. Veliotes, June 21, 1993.

5. Jointness can best be described in terms of members of the uniformed services operating in joint commands, thereby surrendering their parochial interests to ensure effective interservice coordination. This is critical in achieving effective joint operations, and in empowering the unified or specified commander-in- chief with the authority and responsibility for all the troops in his or her command. There are direct parallels between the rivalries that existed between the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps and those that exist between the agencies with overseas representation. Jointness in the military, however, required the outside stimulus of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which also makes joint service a prerequisite for promotion to flag or general officer rank. Jointness was specifically discussed during an interview with former Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the German Democratic Republic Rozanne L. Ridgway on June 29, 1993. Ambassador Ridgway agreed that taken to its logical conclusion, jointness might lead to State Department Foreign Service Officers being rated by individuals from the Commerce Department or vice versa, Agency for International Development employees vying for positions in United States Information Agency headquarters, or even a larger proportion of ambassadorial appointments from non-State career officials.

6. According to Section 207 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 (P.L. 96-465), the Chief of Mission should have the "full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all Government Executive Branch employees in that country (except for employees under the command of a United States area military commander)."

7. Tuthill, p. 40.

8. Discussion with panel of experts, June 21, 1993.

Return To Report Index

Who We Are |||Latest Additions |||Initiatives |||Customer Service |||News Room |||Accomplishments |||Awards |||"How To" Tools |||Library |||Web Links

Reinvention Comments
Technical Comments